Between Harrow and Wealdstone, in north west London, stands a rather bleak looking cinema. It’s the sort of place you could go past and never give a second look. Cloaked in faded blue metal cladding, the Safari has seen better days. However, all is not as it seems; behind the cladding is an art deco cinema frontage that has not seen the light of day since the late 1960s. The former Dominion remains one of London’s hidden gems — one that is crying out to be restored.
Still, it is a credit to the current owners of this huge building that it is still entertaining audiences (through considerably smaller than when it first opened), and contributing to the local community. The Safari shows Bollywood films in the part of the older cinema that used to be the upper circle, whilst downstairs, in the old stalls area is the V2V Community Church.
In the mid 1930s a number of new ‘super cinemas’ were built by the Hammond Dawes circuit, trading under the Dominion name, and our building in Harrow, opened on 9 January 1936. The architect was the accomplished Frank Ernest Bromige. A number of Bromige’s cinemas still exist, notably the former Grosvenor, not far away, in Rayners Lane. The Grosvenor escaped the ignominy of cladding and has survived intact, now serving as home to the Zoroastrian Centre.
If you look up at the very top of the Safari today, you can just make out the two concrete towers of the old Dominion, and if you look very carefully through the strange abstract grille at the front, you can make out the old metal framed windows.
Looking at Bromige’s Harrow Dominion in old photographs of the time, you can really feel the majesty of this building. This wasn’t a cinema; this was a futuristic palace, like something from the Flash Gordon films it would have no doubt shown on its huge screen. It is like an art deco cathedral or ocean liner sitting on Station Road. And this is what the cinema owners wanted to achieve — these were the modern equivalent to the church, as the public came and paid their pennies to sit with hundreds of others to watch the screen idols projected onto the screen in front of them. The Dominion demanded to be noticed and enticed you in through its multiple doors to escape the drab pre-war world of uniform suburbia.
The cinema could accommodate 2,500 people, and as well as showing films it also put on variety acts, utilising its 29 foot deep stage, and 12 changing rooms for artistes. Interestingly enough, for a cinema with such a breath-taking exterior, apparently the decor inside was relatively plain for its type.
The decline of cinema and the coming of bingo
However, despite the great hopes of its owners, the Dominion was bought out by the ABC chain only one month after opening. By the early 1960s, cinema attendances were dropping massively, due to the advent of the smaller screen at home. The stark and outrageous deco exterior of the old Dominion was, by then, out of date. The ABC chain, like many others across the UK, decided that a quick fix was the solution. It was time to cover over the now embarrassingly old fashioned, (and costly to maintain), frontages with modern, clean metal sheeting. So, in 1962 the Dominion was hidden away, with only those old enough to remember its glory days. As well as losing its familiar face, it also lost its name , becoming the ABC-Harrow.
Further, more drastic changes came to the old cinema in 1972, when the large auditorium was divided up. The stalls at the bottom were turned into a bingo hall, and the former circle, at the top became a smaller cinema, now only seating 612 people. In 1981, the old cinema cafe was turned into a second cinema seating 133.
In the 1980s ABC was bought up buy the Cannon chain, and so the Dominion saw another name change to the Cannon, Harrow. By 1995 mainstream cinema came to an end and another name change to the Safari, along with Bollywood films. Gala bingo carried on until fairly recently, when the space was converted into a Community Church.
I think it is high time that this incredible cinema frontage was restored back to its former glory, instead of being hidden away. In terms of protection, all that I can find out is that the local borough, Harrow, have given it a ‘Local Listing' status [PDF].
On further enquiry with English Heritage it turns out that the Dominion is not nationally listed. We'd heard from a local that the only way the building would be listed is if someone attempted to demolish it, which seems pretty daft. From what we can make out breeze blocks have been walled up behind the glazed areas, but the metal window frames are still there. In fact, the metal cladding has probably done the frontage a favour by protecting it from the harsh British climate. On closer inspection one of the blue fire exit doors looks to be original, with art deco type designs on the surface.
So what is to become of the old Dominion? Will its grand frontage remain hidden away for many more years, or will someone with vision (and a considerable budget) do the building justice and restore this art deco masterpiece? We're hoping for the latter.
By Mark Amies
Update August 2016: Since we published this article, Alan Pritchard got in touch to share his photos of Souvenir Programme from the opening of the Dominion, on 9 January 9, 1936, which you can see below: